Wisconsin potatoes are a highly sought-after fair dish.
"Do you want to take it, or should I?"
That's what the T-shirted volunteer in the Wisconsin State Fair information booth wearily asked her colleague when I posed my question. It was a query that, she said, they had fielded many times already:
Where is the chocolate-covered bacon?
Year after year, food vendors at summer fairs try to outdo one another in designing outlandish treats. The media love these grotesqueries. Some years back the deep-fried Twinkie seemed the height of excess, but it has been eclipsed by a snack that seems almost late Roman in its decadence.
Yes, thanks in no small part to a mention by Conan O'Brien on The Tonight Show, the talk of the Wisconsin State Fair is chocolate-covered bacon. On a stick. As my boyfriend Ereck and I made the rounds in West Allis on Friday, we kept overhearing mentions of it. ("Where is the chocolate-covered bacon?" "Where is the chocolate-covered bacon?")
I tried some, and I'll have tasting notes for you momentarily. But fairgoers do not have to live by angina-inducing culinary oddities alone.
Some people like the Wisconsin State Fair because of the ramshackle rides and the ramshackle carnies who operate them. Or the ShamWows being sold by the guy from TV. Or the opportunity to drink beer outside as grizzled musicians play the Eagles' "Take It Easy" over and over.
But I like the Wisconsin State Fair because it is a sprawling celebration of the Badger State's agricultural bounty. You can see it in the form of baby chicks and house-sized hogs, of crisply sheared sheep and prize-winning giant cabbages that look like sea monsters.
And you also can taste it, because amid the oily funnel cakes and forgettable hot dogs you can have at any fair, there is fine Wisconsin food for the eating. More and more foodies in the know prize locally grown grub, and the best food at the Wisconsin State Fair comes from right here.
We started our feasting at Senator Herb Kohl's milk outlet. Like several food concessions at the fair, this one is staffed by a horde of teenagers who in addition to dispensing food seem to spend a great deal of time gossiping in small groups. It's appealing. A quarter buys a big cup of cold milk, which comes in five flavors: chocolate, root beer, strawberry, cherry-vanilla and this year's new flavor, banana. We sampled cherry-vanilla and a specially requested mix of chocolate and banana. Delicious; refreshing. Ereck said a big cup of banana milk might have been overpowering on its own, so he was glad for the blend.
Next we went to the finest site at the fair for sampling Dairyland food, the Wisconsin Products Pavilion. It is a cavernous structure devoted to local wares. We hopped in the long line for baked potatoes, and a few minutes later we picked up spuds topped with cheese, salsa, sour cream. They were hearty.
Then I bought an excellent Usinger's bratwurst, served with sauerkraut on a gorgeously browned bun. Ereck, who doesn't eat meat, opted for some Wisconsin goat cheese in a handsome tortilla wrap that incorporated carrots, Romaine lettuce, cranberry chutney, red onion and sunflower seeds. Wisconsin cheese is a big deal, and this chèvre did the state proud.
It was time for the Wisconsin State Fair's signature dish, the cream puff. These are made in brisk, assembly-line fashion in the Original Cream Puff Pavilion. It's fun to watch the puffs being made inside, but this year we grabbed ours in the outdoor line. These cream puffs are rightly famous. They are sandwiches of sweet cream filling between pieces of light, flaky choux pastry. Superb, succulent and worth a visit every year.
Now I needed, finally, to try that notorious chocolate-covered bacon. The attendants in the information booth told us where to go, the crowded blue and white tent of the Machine Shed restaurant. "Bacon," I told the apple-cheeked youth at the counter. "Bacon," he repeated, and then he produced the folded paper towel that held the delicacy. My $3 bought two fat strips of bacon on sticks, encased in liberal amounts of chocolate. They had come straight from the refrigerator.
They were okay. The treat tastes mostly of chocolate, though hints of bacony saltiness emerge. The combination is, you may be surprised to learn, not revolting. Chocolate pairs well with salty, savory flavors, which is why salted nuts are good on hot fudge sundaes, and why there is a generous amount of salt in the recipe for Toll House chocolate chip cookies. But once the novelty had worn off, the chocolate-covered bacon wasn't worth lingering over. I could only manage a few bites.
And better sweets awaited us back at the Wisconsin Products Pavilion. We headed for the ice-cream sundae stand staffed by a (mostly) attentive band of teenagers in the Future Farmers of America. We opted for the maple-syrup topping, which was wonderful. Realizing we might be running low on fluids, we bought cups of cranberry juice courtesy of the booth representing the Wisconsin Cranberry Growers. It was tart and sweet.
Understand, we didn't just spend the day eating. We watched the judging of cows, sheep and horses. At the demonstration by Timber Tina's World Champion Lumberjills, we looked on as hardy women threw axes and operated chain saws. We enjoyed a set of music by the Kids from Wisconsin, who performed a medley of tunes from My Fair Lady. And we dodged quite a bit of rain.
After many hours we were ready to leave, but I can't visit the state fair without eating some fried cheese curds. We were wary of garishly painted carny carts selling curds, though, so we chose the version of this signature Wisconsin snack being sold at the State Fair outpost of the Milwaukee rib joint Saz's. These were good with ranch dressing.
There was only one problem with them. They weren't covered in chocolate. Maybe next year.